By Alex @OsidePunker
June 8-10, 2017
Solo runs are scary. The good kind of scary. Like watching a really well-done horror movie. Entertaining as hell, but scary. This is how I felt as I left the asphalt and started up Berdoo Canyon Road. I have never been to Joshua Tree. It has always been on my list and I was excited to embark on this journey. As I stopped to air down my tires (30 psi front 28 rear, good multi-terrain pressures), a single Toyota Tacoma passed me by, the driver giving me a friendly wave. Just one truck to remind me how empty the trail was. I had two nights of camping ahead of me and I already dealt with one problem on the trail… Let me back up.
Ok, so I wasn’t really on the trail and it wasn’t really a trail problem. More of an inconvenience. As I left I-10, I decided to fuel up at some random backcountry Circle K. There were quite a few disreputable types hanging around the gas station. One couple was dressed in motorcycle leathers and standing around appearing to be doing nothing… and no bike in sight. Hmmm. So I unsnapped the catch on my belt knife, swiped my card in the pump, and started gassing up. I noticed that the card reader was unusually large, but I dismissed it. I was 5 minutes down the road with the nasty Circle K in my rear view, when my phone went off with multiple alerts regarding a fraudulent charge to Best Buy for $1500. Turns out the pump was rigged with a skimmer. Bank of America took care of me; card shut off, charges reversed, and new card in the mail. Except now I didn’t have my main Visa card. At least I was lucky that the thieves were efficient and tried to use the card immediately. If they had waited just a half hour, I wouldn’t have had cell service. Anyways, no big deal. I carry backup cash and I had other credit cards I could use. Onward to adventure!
As I drive up Berdoo Canyon, I start to relax. Whenever I am on the trail, I encounter peace. No worries, no stress, no cell phone signal. It’s just my truck, the trail, and planet Earth as far as I can see. Continuing up the canyon, the trail tightened up. I angled my side mirrors down. Since I am solo, I don’t need to watch my six and the mirrors are very useful for watching the rear tires on tight trails. Berdoo is kind of ugly. Not ugly as in difficult, but ugly like your friend’s new baby. There’s trash and shotgun shells everywhere. However, once I traveled deeper into Berdoo Canyon and continued onto Geology Tour road, I was rewarded with beautiful views of cactus and Joshua trees and huge boulders. I ran the Geology Tour loop and soaked it all in. I was now in God’s Country. And I was pleased.
I decided to camp at White Tank. There are no backcountry camping areas in Joshua Tree National Park. You can leave the park boundaries and camp in the BLM areas, but I wanted the full park experience. White Tank is a dispersed family campground. They have a shitter and trash cans, but no water or showers or other amenities. It’s named after the giant boulders that surround the campsite made of white tank granite. It’s a beautiful campground and not very big, which suits me just fine. As I read the entrance sign, I realized that I had run out of checks and I only had $20’s. I needed to find change in order to pay for the site. Fml. The next hour saw me driving to various campgrounds and picnic sites, on the hunt for a friendly citizen. Turns out nobody in Joshua Tree has change for a $20. Must be an unwritten rule; do not bring small bills to the park :rolleyes: Or maybe it’s my tattoos, ha! After asking who knows how many people, I find one guy who has $17. I’ll take it.
So now I have a nice little camp site. I grabbed a few beers and spent a couple hours exploring the boulders around the camp. The views were stunning; especially with the sun sinking in the horizon and the temperatures getting downright comfortable. It was very spiritual. I may, or may not, have stripped naked and snapped selfies on top of boulders with the sunset rays lighting my ass cheeks. When I returned to camp, I took a hot shower and then relaxed by the fire draining brewskis until it was time to hit the sack. First night was a WIN.
The next morning, I made a fresh pot of Kona in my Mr. Coffee maker, dropped some desert heat, grabbed a California breakfast burrito from my fridge, and threw it in my portable oven. Firing up The Truck, I got excited. Time to explore! I had an ambitious list of trails I wanted to run today. First up, I needed to top off my tank in 29 Palms (cash of course). As I exited Joshua Tree, I passed a Ranger Station Checkpoint. There was no Ranger on duty so I wasn’t sure what the checkpoint was for. While I was in 29 Palms, I had a little cell service so I text my girlfriend, “good morning I am still alive”, posted some Instagram gold, and checked on my burrito. Nope, still not ready. I had to waste my tire tread on about 10 miles of asphalt, then I started up Gold Crown road from the north side of the park.
As I was making my way up the trail I found lots of side trails that weren’t on my maps. I use Open Android Maps with Backcountry Navigator on a dedicated Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 10” tablet; with a Ram mount. It’s the best mapping solution I have found so far, but there are still marked trails that don’t show up. That’s cool with me. It’s fun to explore off map. However, I decided to stay on mapped trails for the time being as it was early in the day and I wanted to hit all my planned routes.
Gold Crown is a pretty cool trail. Easy trail with hills on both sides that starts at about 2000’ and gently climbs as you leave BLM land and get deeper into Joshua Tree. I found a nice hill top to enjoy my burrito and cold glass of OJ, then I continued on. The trail was a little sandy and mostly straight so I was able to open it up and heat up my shock oil. Miles disappeared in huge rooster clouds of dust. Jackrabbits ran for their life. Weird little mice with abnormally long feet and strange hops feared for their safety. Lizards with really long tails sun baking on the rocks did not give two fucks; they just stared at me. Silently judging my driving skills.
I was almost to Old Dale Road when I had enough of passing mysterious side trails and I decided to take one. It started to climb, then turned into a narrow side shelf with switchbacks. At this point I was committed so I kept going. About a mile into it, it dead ended at a mine. I had my eyes on the dead end, so I failed to see a sharp rock on the side of the trail and I nailed it. Damn. Upon inspection, I found a huge gouge in my sidewall and a golf ball size rock in the bead. Now, the thing to do at this point is to swap the tire. I carry two full size spares. Except it was about 90 degrees out and I am a lazy fuck. After listening for a little bit, I decide it’s holding air. Then I pried out the rock in the bead and it was still holding air. I pronounced the tire good as new and went to look at the mine.
This one was a hole in the ground about 4’ x 4’, no fence, no cover. I couldn’t see the bottom. I dropped a rock in and I was able to count 4 mississippi’s before it hit. Awesome! Wouldn’t want to fall into that one. After I was done fantasizing about lowering myself in with my winch, it was time to turn around. Except I was on a narrow shelf road and I would have to drive backwards about a mile on switch backs. One side of the trail was a drop, the other side was a steep, loose upslope. I began to sweat a little. I stared at the trail. I stared at The Truck. I checked the size of my balls. Yep, they are big enough. 20 point turns are not that bad as long as you are patient and careful:
Old Dale Road was mostly uneventful. There are a bunch of side trails here too. Most are out and backs with a mine at the end. I came across one that looked interesting so I decided to check it out. I was rewarded with a very creepy hole in the side of a hill. I’ve seen mines in Death Valley. They are usually blocked so you can’t enter. This one was wide open and yelling at me to enter its belly:
#NOPE. My PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) would not catch a signal in there and I was very alone and about 50 miles from asphalt. I was wearing my safety flip flops and I had a badass flashlight, but NOPE NOPE NOPE. So I stood at the entrance and made creepy calls into the maw and listened for echoes. I might have spent 5 minutes making Chewbacca growls... I can neither confirm nor deny.
I crested a hill and Old Dale Mine Road blessed me a some beautiful views of Joshua Tree. The trail was pretty easy, but I did twist my axles in a few spots. I was driving easy because of my tire, but I had zero drama.
Black Eagle Mine Road runs for about 9 miles until it hits BLM land. Again, there are lots of side trails and mines. Most of the trail is fast and fun and I was definitely having fun! By the time I hit some turns and rocks and had to slow down, I was pretty deep into the BLM land. I came across a couple more holes in the ground and stopped to throw rocks. This time I dropped over a dozen. I don’t understand what is so entertaining about dropping rocks in deep holes, but I don’t need to understand, it’s a blast! At this point I decided to turn around. There were a lot of trails that I didn’t get to explore, but I wanted to stick to my plan. Oh well, I guess I will just have to come back!
On the way back, I saw a side trail that wasn’t on my map and I just couldn’t resist. The elevation on the map showed that it went a couple miles to some hills in the distance. When I got to the foot of the hills, I found an awesome group campsite. It was perfectly flat, with a big fire ring, and surrounded by hills. I could probably fit a dozen trucks there and it was in the middle of nowhere. I’m still new to using GPS apps, I’ve been using paper maps for years. But my friend Craig gave me shit for a long time and I finally went digital last year. So I experimented. I saved a way point of the camp and entered a bunch of details about the site. Then I recorded tracks from the site back to the trail where it picks up on my maps. I know, I know. All you GPS junkies are saying that’s kindergarten activities, but for me its baby steps.
I stopped at the Cottonwood Visitor Center to eat a fruit pie and stretch my legs. While I was there I saw a sign saying to pay the fees. Looks like there’s a picnic area, but they wanted $25! Fuck that. I ate my pie on my tailgate in the parking lot. After that, I hit Pinkham Canyon and Thermal Canyon trails. These trails are the best ones in the park. The vegetation is tight, they’re a little sandy in places, and there are a few technical spots. I ran them fast AF. So fast, I have no pictures. They dropped me out on the south side of the park near I-10. On the way out I was able to get a peak of the Salton Sea. There were also a few washes that I had to climb out of that were pretty difficult. Overall they are very fun trails with incredible views and landscapes.
At this point I could have gotten on the freeway and made my way back to Pinto Basin Road… orrr I could try to use all the little BLM trails that ran parallel to the freeway that were showing up on my fancy digital maps. I had so much fun trying to pace the freeway traffic from the dirt trails! I caught air. I squirted my pants. I was scared, yet entertained. It turns out, this BLM area has quite a few trails. I will have to return and check em out:
I finally hit pavement at the Chiriaco Summit and filled up again. The Truck is like a pregnant chick, tiny tank, always making pit stops. At this point I wanted to do asphalt back to camp and see a few of the touristy spots. There are lots of cool hikes you can do in Joshua Tree and I read the signs for some of them so I can return and do some hiking and backcountry camping. The Cholla Cactus Garden was very cool. I did not do the whole ¼ mile hike since my safety flops are not rated for Cholla needles. In fact, there was a lady there who got a bear paw (that’s what they call the ball of needles that break off and go rolling across the ground in the wind) stuck to the back of her hand. Her hand was JACKED.
I stopped at Keys Point and ate a hot carnitas burrito. It’s a very cool lookout, a little over 5000’ up with a great view of the land south of the park. I backed The Truck up to the edge, dropped my tailgate, set up my chair, and cracked a beer while I enjoyed the view. As I was chilling, I met a super cool dude from northern CA. He was camping solo in the park and doing some hiking. We talked trucks, we talked biking, we talked hiking, we did not talk about getting naked in the desert.
When I finally got back to camp, I was ready for a hot shower and my comfortable roof top tent. However, my new camp neighbors had other plans. Almost a dozen hippies from Los Angeles and they were celebrating a birthday. They had tons of booze and a sack full of party favors. I could not say no to their invitations and eventually I found myself in full blown party mode until 1am. So much for waking up early and doing more trails before I headed home…
Remember the empty Ranger checkpoint? Well, I decided the fastest way home was to hit the highway at 29 Palms. As I pulled up, a Ranger stuck her head out the window and asked me to roll down my window. She wanted my pass. Remember the $25 fee for the picnic area at Cottonwood? Well, turns out that fee is for the whole park. I left with my wallet $25 lighter and my head full of memories. I will be back.